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Western Journalists and Russian Intelligence

March 21, 2014

The Russian seizure of Crimea plus Moscow’s intimidation, and worse, of all Ukraine, has created an awkward situation for Edward Snowden’s fans and enablers. That Ed has taken up residence in Putin’s Russia, and continues to pontificate about privacy and the perfidy of Western intelligence while under Kremlin protection, is a bit much, so much so that even MSM stalwarts have begun to ask difficult questions about the whole Snowden-linked apparat.

Judging from their conduct, not to mention the vicious online abuse suffered by myself and others who have questioned the narrative that Snowden is a pure-hearted patriot who “just happened” to wind up in Moscow, it seems justified to ask about the motivations of Snowden’s stalwart defenders in the West. Some may be pawns of Russian intelligence but most, I suspect, are what Communists once called Useful Idiots: Westerners whose hatred of their own society is so profound that they accept baldfaced Kremlin lies uncritically. It’s hard to avoid the conclusion that the egregious Walter Duranty has present-day equivalents.

Yet espionage cannot be ruled out either. Indeed, Moscow’s powerful intelligence apparatus has long considered Western journalists to be an easy and tasty target, not least because so many volunteered their services freely, or at least cheaply. Post-Cold War revelations made clear that among numerous Useful Idiots in Western journalists there were paid-up Soviet agents too, who consciously transmitted Kremlin Line agitprop masquerading as “daring” journalism.

This rot was present from the start. The father of Central European “investigative journalism,” Egon Erwin Kisch, can serve as our Patient Zero. In the waning days of Austria-Hungary, the young Kisch, who gave himself the sobriquet “the raging reporter,” cemented his reputation in 1913 with his scoop about the notorious traitor Colonel Alfred Redl – a sordid tale of espionage, corruption, suicide, and sex – who was probably the Spy of the (20th) Century. Kisch virtually created the image of the hard-boiled, cynical journalist who went the extra mile to uncover what others sought to hide: “nothing is more annoying than the truth” was his mantra.

Yet behind the muckraking there was an unpleasant, if concealed, reality. After 1918, as he rose to journalistic stardom across Europe, Kisch was a committed Communist who secretly served Soviet military intelligence (GRU). His solidarity with Moscow was unshakable, as he was every bit as credulous about the Kremlin as he was incredulous about everything else,  and while he reported on all sorts of scandals that put “bourgeois society” in a bad light, he was taking GRU orders. Kisch’s allegiances were an open secret in certain circles and even some committed Leftists found his stock line, “I am Stalin’s soldier,” hard to swallow. Through the Ukrainian genocide-famine, the Purges, all the worst Stalinist excesses, Kisch was a deeply devoted Soviet agent while posing as a truth-teller to his Western readers. His devoted service to one of the most murderous regimes in history notwithstanding, there is an Egon Erwin Kisch Prize for journalists in Germany today.

American journalism, too, had “secret soldiers of Stalin” in its ranks, and there were more than a handful. In a case I was involved in decades after the fact, back in the 1940s one of the most prominent members of the U.S. journalistic scene was, we discovered much later thanks to information derived from KGB sources, also a devoted secret Communist. He was so overtly pro-Stalin that it creeped out his fellow-traveling friends, and during World War II he apparently passed U.S. classified information to the Soviets. However, by the late 1940s, he had a change of heart and over time became a committed anti-Communist, which was not uncommon back then. Moreover, there was nothing to be done with the case, as we learned of his treason decades after the event, which was mitigated by the reality that he abandoned the Moscow Line early in the Cold War, and he was dead to boot. It’s an interesting file that some researcher will make an intriguing “footnote to history” out of decades hence, once it’s been declassified and released to the archives.

The most notorious case, however, is that of I.F. Stone, Izzy to his legions of admirers on the Left, who cultivated the image of the muckraking journalist for truth pitch-perfectly for decades. It was a fraud. Inconveniently, he was an agent of Soviet intelligence in the late 1930s, at the height of Stalin’s purges, and maintained some sort of witting relationship with the KGB to 1956, when he broke with Moscow – later than many – over the invasion of Hungary. KGB efforts to reestablish their relationship with the elderly Stone, an “old master” in Chekist parlance, in 1968 were not successful. The extent to which Soviet connections influenced Stone’s “daring” reporting must remain an open question, but the vehement efforts of his defenders to deny his ties to the Soviet secret police are thoroughly debunked here.

Needless to add, there is an “Izzy Prize” to reward “special achievement in independent media” in honor of I.F. Stone. Its inaugural winner was Glenn Greenwald, who along with Jeremy Scahill was recently named to the “I.F. Stone Hall of Fame.”

For too many decades, among too many Western investigative journalists, secret loyalty to the Kremlin has been more a feature than a bug. As we enter a Second Cold War of the Kremlin’s creation, it’s time to face up to this reality and start asking about the real motivations of “truth tellers” who like to criticize the West while dodging negative comments about Moscow.

30 Comments
  1. mark permalink

    from the best thing I’ve read from Ukraine:

    “If civilization is in danger today, if it is fated to decline and perish, it will do so with the enthusiastic assistance of credulous people. They seem to me more dangerous than the most brazen leaders, because everything is done with their cooperation. ….
    “How pleasant it is, after all: to treat politics of whatever kind with utter contempt, to dance, to love, to drink and sleep and breathe. To live. God give you strength!
    “The only thing is that I can see from my little window that while some people are loving and sleeping, others are busy making handcuffs for them. Why? That’s the question. There are so many would-be benefactors in the world. And they are all determined to shower benefits on the whole world. Nothing less. And for this purpose very little is needed: simply that the world should fit into the design which is taking shape God knows how in their feeble, complex-tortured minds.
    “They do not scorn politics; they are makers of policy. They make their own cudgel and then bring it down on other people’s heads and in this manner they put their politics into practice.
    “Careful, my friends!
    “On the basis of my own and other people’s experience and of experience generally, on the basis of much thinking and searching, worry and calculation, I say to you: THE PERSON WHO TODAY IGNORES POLITICS WILL REGRET IT.
    “I did not say I liked politics. I hate them. I scorn them. I do not call upon you to like them or even respect them. I am simply telling you: DON’T IGNORE THEM.”
    — A. Anatoli Kuznetsov, “Babi Yar”

    Kuznetsov was a boy when the Germans occupied Kiev. The novel was banned in the Soviet Union for many years (in its uncensored form) since it was too blunt. Babi Yar is the place where the Nazis shot the Jews of Kiev, and then shot tens of thousands of non-Jews.

  2. A reader permalink

    Your entries are sometimes depressing (but highly informative) to read. Thanks specifically for the historical background on the “useful idiots”.

  3. In the spirit of your post, I wonder how many in the intelligence community are intellectual descendants of Joseph McCarthy–eager to paint broad swaths of people with dissenting political views as foreign sympathizers/spies. Snowden, himself, is a sideshow; the real issue is the expansion, and lack of accountability, of the intelligence apparatus post-9/11.

    Here are undeniable facts about the intelligence community, as I see them:

    1) Telecom companies needed to be given retroactive immunity for complying with Bush Administration wiretapping orders that were flagrantly illegal, and could have subjected those private companies to civil liability.

    2) Members of the CIA (some who may still be employed) used torture on individuals in their custody. A subsequent executive order (after Bush left office) was required to end the practice. Whether their actions were legal under US and/or international law is still unknown. Soon after taking office, Obama refused to hold those who may have been guilty of violations of law from facing justice.

    3) The NSA has overstepped its mandate and is (potentially unconstitutionally) collecting large volumes of Americans’ private data. This comes not only at the cost of our civil liberties but literally billions of dollars annually. According to Sens. Ron Wyden and Mark Udall (who serve on the intelligence committee), there is no evidence that these massive expenditures have yielded results. (http://www.wyden.senate.gov/news/press-releases/wyden-udall-issue-statement-on-effectiveness-of-declassified-nsa-programs)

    4) DNI James Clapper lied about the collection of Americans’ personal data in an open hearing and refused to amend his statement after the fact. Lying to congress thwarts any real oversight of these expansive, expensive, and wasteful programs. Nevertheless, he has kept his job.

    It’s time to reign in the military and intelligence apparatus, curtail the waste in their programs (see Reuters great piece on military inventories), and demand that people be held accountable for both past and present transgressions.

    We place enormous trust in our intelligence agencies. When that trust is violated, people need to be held accountable. I have seen no evidence of journalistic malpractice in investigative reporting of the NSA revelations. In contrast, we know with certainty that some in the intelligence community have violated the law; why are you not more outraged about that?

    • You forgot to mention DRONES!!!!!!

      • Dan permalink

        The utility of drones becomes less interesting as more countries develop the counter-IT to crash-land or hijack them via signal intercept and/jamming. Raytheon and Northrup aren’t giving these things away. Pre-coded missions with hard-point communications is an inevitability in the drone space, but that removes a lot of the competitive edge. Drone submarines are the biggest joke due to signal attenuation in water. Any meaningful bandwidth would require repeaters about every 100m to replicate even household transmission rates.

        Military hardware, of every nation, is still subject to the laws of physics and even drones experience network latency that shapes the use-case. At the end of the day, the problem is still human weakness as Snowden and all of his immediate peers have demonstrated.

        What this all signals is the end of the low-intensity warfare (covert/SF) era and a return to overt high-intensity warfare. Personally, I think this is a good thing because war has been too cheap to wage from a domestic-local level all of the way up to the sovereign scale. Too much lawyering and shadow/passive-aggressive behavior is creating a multitude of aggressive people where there were only a few manageable aggressors before.

        The greatest public service the NSA could perform would be to dump all personally-compromising data on everyone and set the bar real low for what is possible for inquiring minds to know about everyone’s “private” behavior. This would significantly alter individual and social behaviors across the board and for the better. The less dirt we all generate, the less we have to hide for fear of explaining to loved ones later and the smaller our surface area for attack is to manipulate each and everyone.

        “the truth shall set you free”
        John 8:31 & following

        Maybe we should draft a lifestyle best practices memo…oh, wait.

      • There may have been abuses in the drone program, but I prefer to stick with undeniable facts. I criticized your post, because you “paint broad swaths of people with dissenting political views as foreign sympathizers/spies.” I would not similarly characterize members of the intelligence community involved in the drone program as violators of US or international law without substantial evidence.

        You can troll my comment, but the facts remain. Nobody should be above the law and above accountability. The brave investigative journalists who demand accountability for our elected officials and the intelligence community are performing a valuable service to our country: the New York Times, which revealed the warrantless wiretappping in (1), the multiple press outlets that reported on “extraordinary renditions,” “enhanced interrogation,” and other CIA abuses (2), and now the journalists who used Snowden’s documents to expose NSA overreach and Clapper’s lie to Congress (3-4).

        I am hopeful that the dramatic expansion of the military and intelligence agencies since 9/11 (in terms of both their budgets and the powers granted to them under the Patriot Act and related legislation) is finally reigned in. If that is ultimately accomplished as a result of these reporters’ courageous reporting, then they will have performed an extraordinary act of public service.

      • Why don’t you actually address why my piece was about?

      • Dan permalink

        The reason Snowden matters is not because he’s evaded accountability, so far, or that he is shopping at Russian grocery stores, but that he has demonstrated digital information has asymmetrical features that generate profound benefits and risks. Gone are the days of smuggling sheets of paper and here is the reality of commodity terabyte drives.

        The military industrial complex was restructured into primes and subs to diversify risk and boy has it ever! The Snowden drama is a wake-up call for reflection on the efficacy of the entire structure that exists today. FAR is a huge mess that has created a complex machine with far too many single points of failure.

        Let’s take this Snowden discussion to the next level and talk about the real problems instead of the drama. Sino-Russian synergies are significant and our policy is making these relations make even more sense.

      • The reason Snowden matters is because he’s moved to Russia.

      • Dan permalink

        Re: “The reason Snowden matters is because he’s moved to Russia”

        Ha! Snowden matters because a non-trivial (significant) quantity of classified defense documents were illegally promulgated to the world and he was able to do it and did it. What blows the whole Russian asylum and assistance theory up isn’t that they’re using him today, but that he had this kind of access and could even travel to Hong Kong or anywhere abroad in the first place.

        It’s not like GRU extracted him from the USA in some feat of daring espionage. He bought a ticket, passed NSA and TSA soft systems and hard systems without any problems.

        Next thing you know a Brasil-based journalist gets a half-billion dollar funding commitment from a US businessman. Come on, John!

        There is no need for a Russian espionage theory. The internal systems of the Pentagon are supposed to neutralize the capability, not a motive. Russia is harboring him, but that’s not of actual interest to anyone that matters.

        Trotting out the Russia card at this point is stinky RED herring. The fish broke the net and line and its name was not Snowden.

      • Your naïveté is touching.

      • Who cares if he was a Russian spy? It is irrelevant now. The documents he provided have been verified by numerous media organizations with seemingly different agendas. The NSA and U.S. government have acknowledged the legitimacy of the documents. The source and his motives are is irrelevant to me. What matters is what we do with the information. Focusing on Snowden’s story is like learning and verifying reports of an impending terrorist attack and then focusing on whether the materials were ethically obtained rather than what can be done to stop the attack itself. The NSA’s attack on internet freedoms is ongoing.

      • Said like a good Chekist

  4. The sheer gall of some of these “agents of influence” is notable: when confronted with incontrovertible proof of their Cold War activities, many have squawked about being persecuted by Right Wing fanatics, and have, when pressed for an explanation, said: “The Cold War is Over, stupid, in case you didn’t get word !”

    I’m sure the present generation of “fellow travelers” will do likewise —-after the mandatory denials of their painfully obvious activitiy.

  5. Reblogged this on mrmeangenes.

  6. I think it is quite fair and reasonable to question and doubt the narrative that Snowden is a hero or patriot. What he did was unquestionably treasonous to the government. It was also patriotic for the people, in my view. The two are the same when a government seeks to protect and increase its own interests over those of the people, mistaking the former for the latter. Even supposing Snowden is a turncoat (which I don’t happen to believe), I believe his revelations were the most important and useful of my lifetime. I would rather have transparent government that cannot protect me than a strong but opaque government that lies to me at every turn. The Gulag Archipelago can happen anywhere; we are not immune.

  7. Matt permalink

    Snowden ended up in Moscow because his US passport was cancelled while he was passing through on his way to someplace else. His being in Russia was beyond his control. Harv to see how that was part of anyone’s plan.

    • Moscow has admitted that Snowden met in Hong Kong with Russian “diplomats” at the RU consulate BEFORE USG cancelled his passport…please try and keep your facts straight.

      • Matt permalink

        Do you have a citation for that?

        Are you saying that Snowden gave them is data then? Or that he arranged for them to give him asylum?

      • It’s all on this very blog

  8. Dan permalink

    “As we enter a Second Cold War of the Kremlin’s creation”

    I’m with you until that line. When are the men going to breech the subject of all of the women shaping foreign policy in this administration? Women can only wage low-intensity wars and Russia has predictably put their foot down on clandestine operations in Syria and now Crimea. This is elementary math for anyone being honest and paying attention: Putin will act to preserve his energy-derived influence throughout Europe. Let’s rewind to Libya and the stellar performances by Clinton and Power there.

    This administration is dominated by man-hating women who don’t know what a fight is about much less warfare. The risk is that these man-hating women in positions of responsibility and authority make or influence decisions based upon the archetype of being a strong woman for modernity’s sake. Even Kerry is a kept-boy.

    It doesn’t take an economics phd (haha) to see these geopolitical dominos falling the way they do. The entire military has been restructured for low-intensity warfare with incentives for women a non-whites to make flag.

    I fully expect stupid policy to continue until the actual values of true leadership are restored and the theoretical-aspirational values of feminine and non-white leadership for the sake of equalitarianism are abandoned. Stupid policy yields predictable results.

    Frankfurt has lots of money, let Merkel reap what she’s sowed for the Deutsch-land. The Germans are smart, resourceful and industrious people capable of solving problems.

    PS – Snowden isn’t just about Russia, anyone paying attention has known, with close approximation, what the capabilities of the NSA are and we all know what their mandate is. This attack on the NSA has the full participation of the US media. The NSA has an unprecedented capability to expose anyone anywhere on the earth’s socially-unnacceptable behavior and we all know these multi-national company officers enjoy their offshore business ventures.

    “News is something someone wants suppressed, everything else is just advertising”

    The professional journalists are the last people who will do any real investigating.

  9. Haha, McCarthy 2.0. Had to see it to believe it. Incredible.

  10. Great piece. Both refreshing (and disturbing) to read your ongoing coverage of #SnowdenOp. The very concept of Influence Operations strikes many outside of the IC as absurd, or unbelievable, it would seem. That’s gotta stem from the fact that these ops rely on a mode of thinking that’s completely foreign to the ways in which we, as Americans tend to see the world. It’s symptomatic of our larger problem with an utter inability to see things from an adversary’s mindset. The Russians and Chinese offer such amazing, consistent examples of long-term efforts to gain influence and drive narrative – from the work of Duranty and many others shilling for the Soviets, to the pre-PRC Chinese Communist Party propaganda spit forth by Edgar Snow and Anna Louise Strong (among others). The common threads there are, of course, the Soviet model of influence operations (the Chinese model is a direct product of Soviet training, just as the PRC – for all of the surface-level market-oriented economic reforms remains a state running on solidly Leninist hardware), and a long-term focus on the part of FIS that’s nearly unfathomable by Western thinkers.

    We see it today in the ridiculous storylines advanced by Greenwald, and the Kremlin mouthpieces at RT, NTV, and every other state-run (or financed) media outfit in Russia, and by the work of influence agents for China in the West, whether in the form of the Confucius Institutes that effectively drive the China Studies departments at most major US universities (connected to the CCP’s United Front Work Dept.), or PRC apologists throughout media and the Federal gov’t. These threats are real, ongoing, and consistent, and we continue – for the most part – to plug our ears, shut our eyes, and whistle past the graveyard.

    Snowden provides only the most recent, visible example of a long-term vulnerability in the West.

  11. Your historical information harkens back to the active measures Cold War days, but no one in the West seems to know what to do with the vast amounts of information we’re collecting now, except that traitor, Snowden. Snowden matters, because he’s a tool the Russians will continue to use to deepen distrust between American citizens and their government, between the various branches of our government, and also between America and our allies. It’s a classic divide and conquer strategy, they’re playing masterfully. The Nuland leaked phone conversation seems most likely a Russian move to further divide the Western alliance too. The Russians never stopped playing the game, while we seem to have political hacks making moves that should be left to professionals in the intelligence community. How some dorky kid like Snowden acquired so much information boggles my mind and how some high-level State Dept official would talk openly over an unsecured phone makes me wonder if security-training even takes place these days.

Trackbacks & Pingbacks

  1. Military And Intelligence News Briefs — March 22, 2014 – JumpSeek
  2. The Nature of the Enemy: Russia’s Postmodern Dictatorship | The Syrian Intifada
  3. The XX Committee Snowden Reader | The XX Committee
  4. On Espionage Denial | The XX Committee

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